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Where do those great plot-driving characters come from?

April 26, 2010 |  7:30 am

Fictionillusionordinary

Book critic Susan Salter Reynolds, who’s been reviewing books for 20 years, opened the “Fiction: The Illusion of Being Ordinary” panel Sunday afternoon by reading from each of the three author’s books.

First was Dylan Landis’ “Normal People Don’t Live Like This,” which I had read and think is great. Soon, the whole room knew that, as evidenced by the man in front of me ardently nodding his head in approval during the reading.

Salter Reynolds then used just the right amount of humorous animation when reading from Elizabeth Crane’s “You Must Be This Happy to Enter,” an excerpt about a character’s awesome life. Next up was  “Heroic Measures” by Jill Ciment, much of which is told through the eyes of a dachshund. Salter Reynolds described the book as “quiet”, and went on to explain how “wildly different” each book was and yet they’re all “products of our culture.”

The authors went on to talk about pop culture (Elizabeth Crane and her husband applied and were rejected from “The Amazing Race”), making our times as relevant as any in great literature (Ciment’s goal), post-911 New York and how the writing world has changed since they all began writing.

So where do these fiction characters come from? Ciment and Crane go back and forth with writing autobiographical characters. Landis says she “can’t really move without a character.” Her inspiration comes from images of still photographs she sees, then tries to make them come to life. Sometimes a tiny piece of dialogue can launch a story but always, Ciment stressed, is the importance of a plot, figuring out what people do with obstacles.

Writing groups, yea or nay? While the  immediate response was nay, all three authors said they do have some writer friends whom they bounce their work off of and are so appreciative to have those people in their lives. Crane said she recently rejected a Facebook friend request from a member of a weird writing group she was in years ago in Chicago. Salter Reynolds joked that he was probably in the audience. (Luckily, he didn’t seem to be.)

Landis said she learned how to critique her own work effectively from a writing group led by Jim Krusoe, founding editor of the Santa Monica Review, who teaches at Santa Monica College. Ciment got the most reader feedback she’s ever received after 110,000 people downloaded her book from a 48-hour giveaway by Oprah Winfrey.

What did she learn from this feedback? How much ambiguity frustrates people. “Moral ambiguity?” questioned Salter Reynolds. No, any ambiguity! That got a few laughs, but is also a good point for aspiring writers to consider.

Someone in the audience asked where the authors write. Landis said she writes at Starbucks; Crane works at home, as does Ciment, starting off each morning with a hit of marijuana. (Being in California, she felt comfortable sharing.) The crowd loved it, and Salter Reynolds told her children in the front row to plug their ears.

—Leslie Anne Wiggins

Photo: From left, Susan Salter Reynolds, Dylan Landis, Elizabeth Crane and Jill Ciment. Credit: Leslie Anne Wiggins


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